Finding another Freddie

Posted by Darren Urban on May 13, 2011 – 11:36 am

In 2002, the Cardinals signed tight end Freddie Jones as a free agent. He had a good start to his NFL career while in San Diego, and he was an upgrade at the position. Turns out he was necessary that season too, because starting receivers Frank Sanders and David Boston each suffered injuries (as did MarTay Jenkins and Bryan Gilmore, the No. 3 and 4 guys) and with green wideouts like Jason McAddley and Nate Poole forced to play, a tight end was incredibly important.

So, for the one and only time since the Cardinals moved to Arizona, a tight end – Jones – was the team’s leading pass catcher in a season. Jones had 44 receptions for 358 yards and one touchdown that season. Jones was even better the next season, with 55 receptions for 517 yards (that was Anquan Boldin’s rookie year, though, with 101 catches). And in 2004, Jones had 45 receptions for 426 yards.

By 2005, though, Jones was gone. And the Cards have been searching for a tight end since.

As of now, that hope rests with third-round pick Rob Housler out of Florida Atlantic, a speedy 6-foot-5 H-back type who should be able to stretch the field. His blocking needs work, something he admitted already, but it would help to have a quality receiving option in that spot.

Since Jones left, it’s been a lot about hope unfulfilled. The undrafted tandem of Eric Edwards and Troy Bienemann was the first attempt. Then Leonard Pope was drafted, and while he flashed a couple of times, it was clear after 2007 and coach Ken Whisenhunt’s first season he wouldn’t be the answer. Ben Patrick – whose contract is expiring — also flashed a few times as a seventh-rounder (especially with his TD catch in the Super Bowl) but he never has made a huge impact and never had more than 15 catches in a season.

Granted, in the Warner years, using three- and four-wideouts made more sense, especially when the wideouts had the talent that the Cardinals did. Whisenhunt made clear Housler could be split wide at times and create mismatches, however. And, as many fans have pointed out, when you are breaking in a younger quarterback, the safety valve of a quality tight end can help with the learning curve.

Housler will get a chance to show what he has, and there is a chance the Cards also look in free agency. Jim Dray should be back, and Stephen Spach could be too; Patrick may be more iffy depending on who else is signed. The Cards will have at least four tight ends in training camp.

We’ll see if any of them can, at the very least, echo Freddie Jones.

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Revisionist History: Warner’s arrival

Posted by Darren Urban on May 12, 2011 – 3:30 pm

The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:

We all know what Kurt Warner did for the Arizona Cardinals. We all know the power of his decision to retire.

At the time he arrived, though?

In this first installment of “Revisionist History” (which isn’t so much revising how people should think about a moment for the Cardinals since coming to Arizona as much as reminding them the mindset at the time), a glance back at when the Cards first signed Warner in March of 2005. Denny Green was in his second year as coach. Warner was coming off a benching for the Giants. The Cardinals were coming off a season in which Josh McCown, Shaun King and John Navarre were the quarterback-merry-go-round for Denny.

So Warner was signed. Both local papers compared the decision to the Cards signing Emmitt Smith a couple of years before (“Desperate teams – and desperate players – do desperate things” wrote the Tribune’s Scott Bordow). Remember, Warner only signed a one-year contract in 2005. He re-signed a three-year deal before 2006, and then the Cards took Matt Leinart in the draft, much to his chagrin.

I remember doing a big story on Warner (part one and part two) right before minicamp (that’s a Warner shot from that camp below). There was still much to prove. His halcyon days as a Ram were far behind him, his rebirth with the Cards under Ken Whisenhunt far ahead, relatively speaking. (I mean, I remember how he was showered with boos after the early-season Rams’ loss in 2006. Leinart was the starter soon after, and before the infamous Monday Night Meltdown against the Bears, Kurt was already considering retirement after the season. Can you imagine had he done that, and not had his run in ’07, ’08 and ’09?)

One thing was for certain, Warner still very much believed in himself, and always did, regardless of the circumstances of the team or even Leinart’s showing as a rookie.

A couple of quotes from my Warner opus stand out, especially in retrospect. The first: “It’s kind of my story, the underdog story, no chance to have success. It’s kind of like what I stepped into in St. Louis. I get a chance to rewrite my story and I get a chance to rewrite the story of the Arizona Cardinals.”

There is no question he did.

The second quote? “I am moving my family, I am buying a home and I am believing things are going to work out great. The great thing about it is so much of it depends on me.”

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Revisionist history

Posted by Darren Urban on May 12, 2011 – 11:04 am

As we maneuver through the offseason with little new to report, I’ve decided to look at what is old. More specifically, I plan to write a series of intermittent posts on moments/situations in Arizona Cardinals history that wouldn’t be bad to revisit. The idea is that I dig up newspaper articles at the time to show what was being said in the moment and link to them, with a little of my own analysis (and, assuming the moment happened in 2000 or more recent, that gives me a chance to link to my own articles).

What I’d like to know from you out there as readers is, what moments/situations would you like to revisit? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a game itself. I have some ideas — I’m trying to think outside the box a little bit — but I know I’m going to be looking for material for the time being. Let me know what you want. I’ve got an idea for the first one. Hopefully that’ll be posted later today or first thing tomorrow.

P.S. The latest “All In” webisode is posted, looking in depth at the pick of first-rounder Patrick Peterson. Check it out.

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Going out on your own terms

Posted by Darren Urban on May 11, 2011 – 12:50 pm

The Cardinals wanted guard Alan Faneca to return in 2011, but he chose to retire (already losing almost 60 pounds this offseason). It’s an option most NFL players don’t get. Assistant head coach Russ Grimm went on Sports 620 KTAR and mentioned he too could have come back for one final season during his Hall-of-Fame career with the Redskins but went the same route as Faneca, deciding he simply couldn’t play at the level he wanted to play at any longer.

(Then again, sometimes guys go out when they are still playing at that level. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and a certain quarterback that shall go unmentioned around these parts).

“It’s unusual but I commend Alan for being able to make that decision,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I think the greatest percentage of guys that I have played with, that I have talked to during the years, always end up bitter at some point because they end up forced to leave the game before they are ready, or when their perception of themselves is different than how other people view them.

“I believe Alan can still play so I commend his values for thinking it was his time to call it quits and he went out on his own terms. It’s something not very many guys in this business get to do.”

Faneca did.

“Unfortunately we’ve seen two guys do that in the last two years, in Alan and Kurt,” Whisenhunt added with a small smile. “From a selfish perspective, that’s not what you want to see. But you understand that’s part of the game.”

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Faneca decides to retire

Posted by Darren Urban on May 10, 2011 – 11:49 am

Kent Somers (and other outlets) is/are reporting that guard Alan Faneca has decided to retire from the NFL, something Faneca said he was heavily considering when we got to the end of the season. Faneca played the final season of his 13-year career with the Cards, after playing for the Steelers and Jets. Had things gone differently, he likely would have ended up in Arizona longer because of his relationship with offensive line coach Russ Grimm, but when he was available back in 2008 the Cards couldn’t make it work while trying to sign Larry Fitzgerald to his new deal. So the Faneca-Grimm reunion had to wait until 2010.

Somers has a statement from Faneca, which says in part that the greatest memory he has from the NFL is the friendships he has made.

The Cardinals would have liked to have Faneca back this season but knew all along he would probably step away. He wasn’t the player that once made nine straight Pro Bowls but Grimm insisted he was still effective. He definitely was a good presence in the locker room, something the Cardinals will miss now that he is moving on to a different part of his life.

Given the current roster, Rex Hadnot would figure to immediately be penciled into Faneca’s left guard role, although offensive line remains unsettled given the expiring contracts of fellow starters Lyle Sendlein and Deuce Lutui and the fact free agency has yet to begin. UPDATE: Faneca went on Sirius radio saying he basically had decided a month ago he was ready to step away, but with the draft coming up, he decided to wait and allow the Cards to take someone if they wanted. Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he had talked extensively to Faneca right after the season (and before the work stoppage) and knew retirement was a very real possibility. Click here to read a full story with Whisenhunt quotes.

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The unknown of free agency

Posted by Darren Urban on May 10, 2011 – 9:25 am

Given the current labor situation, free agency has been one big question mark. And it’s not just the “when” but the “how.” That was crystallized yesterday (sorry, I was out covering the charity golf tournament and couldn’t get to writing about it then) when the NFL put out a statement saying the league is looking into “a wide range” of rules for everything once the league year does start, including what players would hit the open market.

“Our goal has at all times been the same — to operate under a negotiated set of procedures that are agreed to by the clubs and the NFLPA,” was the released statement from league spokesman Greg Aiello. “The current litigation has created a significant amount of uncertainty, and we are therefore considering a wide range of alternatives depending on developments.”

That’s why it’s impossible, other than in general terms, to talk much about who the Cards will target. I know people want to know some names — or at least, guesstimate on them — but you can’t. Because you don’t know — and can’t know — who will be available.

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QB “talks,” Fitz and the NY Times

Posted by Darren Urban on May 6, 2011 – 3:29 pm

Very quiet around the complex today. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone. As we move into the weekend, a couple or three things to chew on:

— I am all for speculation about the quarterbacks, because in part I’m going to need to engage in some of it myself as we go forward as long as the labor situation is unsettled. But keep one thing in mind with whatever you hear reported — there haven’t been any talks between the Cards and any other team about a quarterback trade or potential trade, at least not in the last couple months. Even when there was that brief window last week to allow players to work out and speak to coaches, the rest of business was still on hold. As I have said before, I expect the Cards to explore a lot of QB options (kind of like how Sando breaks it down here; I like the analogy to the progressions on a pass play) but such exploration has been and will remain in a holding pattern until this is all sorted out.

In short, speculation is just speculation right now.

— I had someone ask me where Larry Fitzgerald will fit in the NFL Network’s current countdown of the top 100 players in the NFL today. I guessed somewhere in the 20 to 25 range. did the top 101 players in the NFL last year, ranking them (the best they could) on metrics and the like. In its list, Fitzgerald was 52nd best in 2010, between No. 51 Tramon Williams, the cornerback from Green Bay, and No. 53 Joe Haden, the rookie cornerback from Cleveland. Yes, it took into account poor quarterback play, with which “lesser men would have crumbled.”

— The New York Times’ Fifth Down blog breaks down, briefly, the Cards from last season.

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Doing work, just not here

Posted by Darren Urban on May 5, 2011 – 5:06 pm

As I noted a few weeks ago, some Cardinals players (and some guys from other teams) continue to work out over at Arizona State trying to stay in shape, with Larry Fitzgerald’s power as the Pied Piper in full effect. This week, Donovan McNabb happens to be there, which caused a stir (unfortunately for me). But as you can see in this NFL Network piece (nice catch, Andre Roberts!), the work goes on.

How much it makes a difference won’t be known for a while, because everything is up in the air. I’m pretty sure strength and conditioning coach John Lott is counting on guys to be in shape whenever he sees them next.

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Considering the crowded backfield

Posted by Darren Urban on May 5, 2011 – 9:49 am

Last year, the Cardinals had four running backs: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Jason Wright. One time, in Kansas City, both LSH and Wright were out with injuries. Stephens-Howling missed two other games. Beanie missed three games himself (Hightower played in all 16 games). In all, there were 10 games in which the Cards had and used all four backs.

It can work and, given how much practice was missed during the season as one or more of them had nagging aliments, all four were needed.

That’s the backdrop this year with the addition of second-round pick Ryan Williams, the surprising – to a point – choice in the draft. Wright was leaning heavily toward retirement at the end of the season, so the Cards were going to need another back to continue its ratio. Of course, the questions many have aren’t about whether the Cards need four backs, it’s how much playing time each will get.

Hightower had a pretty good season last year and earned the starting job he had nearly all season. But no one – including coach Ken Whisenhunt – is going to forget Hightower’s fumbling issues. Wells has a load of talent, but seemed to take a step back last season with injuries and never found a rhythm all season (although, arguably, the running game was behind the eight-ball given the offense’s circumstances most of the year). The Hyphen flashed every time he had a chance as a back, but he is undersized and has importance on special teams.

“It wasn’t done with the idea of sending one of those guys a message,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said after the pick, and on the surface, I do believe the Cardinals forcefully went into the draft looking to take the best players available  – as they saw them – regardless of the position.

There is little question, though, that they want more from the veteran running backs, and Wells in particular. Beanie told Craig Morgan he understood what the Cards were doing and is even planning to bring both Williams and rookie fullback Anthony Sherman out to Arizona to work out with him. Beanie mentioned “if I’m getting better, I can send a message.”

Anyone following a NFL team has to understand the business part rears up often. I’m sure Edgerrin James didn’t see Hightower replacing him halfway through 2008, just as no one guessed Williams would  be an early pick this season. It’s tough not to note, however, that Whisenhunt continues to mention how the Cards were 5-11 last season, so everything needs to be better. That includes the running game as a whole, and the running backs individually. Williams, in theory, should help that. How it eventually shakes out the depth chart (or, possibly, the roster makeup), well, that’s the storyline everyone has to watch play out.

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Live chat Thursday

Posted by Darren Urban on May 4, 2011 – 4:32 pm

I never did end up with the time to do a pre-draft live chat (I would have said the Cards were taking Patrick Peterson with their first pick and may surprise taking a running back ….) so instead, there will be one tomorrow. Thursday at 11 a.m. Arizona time (which is on Pacific time these days), we can talk about whatever — the draft, what comes next, the quarterback situation, the trade the Cards reportedly passed on last week, whatever. Just click here to find the chat.

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